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Cary Booker Surprised to be Legally Held to His Charter School’s Application

July 11, 2019

On July 11, 2019, NJ.com published a story about Cary Booker, Democratic presidential hopeful Cory Booker’s brother: “Cory Booker’s Brother Opened a School So Bad It Got Shut Down. N.J. Just Gave Him a $150K Education Job.”

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Cary Booker

Some excerpts:

It was spring of 2011, and Omni Prep Academy, the Tennessee charter school co-founded and led by U.S. Sen. Cory Booker’s older brother, could no longer pay its kindergarten and first-grade teachers….

Five years after that — with the school consistently ranked near the bottom of state rankings — Omni Prep was ordered to close. …

Omni Prep, which primarily served minority children in one of America’s poorest metro areas, was ordered to close by Shelby County Schools in 2016. Its appeal to the state was rejected, with a top Tennessee education official writing the school “continually failed to meet the most minimal of performance standards.” …

After working as a policy consultant on [New Jersey governor Phil] Murphy’s campaign in 2017, Cary Booker became the administration’s senior education adviser in 2018, earning $120,000. This June, six days before Murphy stumped for Cory Booker’s presidential campaign in Iowa, the Democratic governor’s administration awarded Cary Booker a new $150,000 position leading the state’s Division of Early Childhood Education, which focuses on birth to third grade.

Yet Cary Booker has never worked in preschools in any capacity, and his primary experience with young elementary school students was at Omni Prep, according to a resume obtained through an open records request. …

A resume provided to New Jersey’s state government made no mention of Omni Prep’s closing. …

In a statement, Gov. Phil Murphy expressed confidence in Cary Booker, who has worked in education-related jobs for 30 years….

So much is problematic here and yet unsurprising in this heyday of market-based ed reform. Cary Booker failed in a charter school venture and yet is promoted to a top post for which he has no direct experience, just “education-related jobs,” one of which he failed at– and apparently also failed to mention on his resume.

But he is the brother of Cory Booker, and that appears to be enough.

Cary Booker, who with Marc Willis (son of Memphis civil rights leader A.W. Willis) opened not one, but two charter schools in Memphis in 2010 (“a first in Memphis”) and whose schools did not live up to the goals declared in the schools’ charters.

As the May 18, 2016, Commercial Appeal notes, Booker and Willis appealed to the Tennessee State Board of Education to keep their schools open after Shelby County Schools (SCS) determined the schools failed and should close.

The standard that SCS used to determine Omni Prep’s failure were the promises made by Booker and Willis in their charter application.

For some reason, this surprised Booker– as though he and Willis should have been able to declare lofty goals in their application in order to schmooze SCS into allowing them to open the two schools (“a first in Memphis,” no doubt) and then be free from following through with these same goals.

Cary Booker’s reaction, as captured in the Commercial Appeal article:

At the center of the charters’ arguments Wednesday were accusations of a lack of revocation procedures and transparency, but also whether SCS should use the charters’ own aspirational goals as a measure of accountability. For instance, Omni Prep said in its application that 95 percent of its students who have been at the school for at least two years would test as proficient or advanced on both math and English on state tests.

Neither charter has a signed contract with SCS. Omni Prep co-founder Cary Booker said if the charter had signed a contract, the school district would have demanded a share of the per-pupil state funding that would go to that school.

SCS Chief of Innovation Brad Leon said without that contract, the application the charter filed to open its schools acts as the contract, according to the state attorney general.

Leon argued that means they can be legally held to standards set forth in their application.

“They are putting in their own contracts what they are going to accomplish,” Leon said. “No one here is forcing them to do that. And then to suggest that ‘We can’t be held accountable to what we put in our application,’ is irresponsible, I think.”

When asked after the meeting if the charter would have put in such high numbers if they were going to be legally bound to them, Booker said “probably not.”

“If that was going to be the measure of accountability, I don’t think we would have,” he said.

Astounding.

Isn’t the whole hooplah about charter school autonomy-accountability supposed to be that *charters are granted autonomy to be free from district oversight but are held to strict accountability to meet the terms of their chartering documents*?

The reality is that Booker and Willis set themselves up with a charter application sell that they could not fulfill, and Cary Booker– the same Cary Booker who has decades of “education-related jobs” to fall back on– wanted to weasel out of the terms of his own charter application and be allowed to keep his charter schools going, just because.

It wasn’t as though the “95 percent proficiency” goal was unmet but close. According to the Tennessee Department of Education’s (TDE) 2015 Charter Schools Report, Omni Prep North Pointe Middle School had 31 percent proficiency in math and 29 percent proficiency in reading, and Omni Prep North Pointe Lower School had 14 percent proficiency in both math and reading.

Not anywhere near the 95 percent promised in the charter application– but enough to be labeled a “priority”….

In October 2016, in its project narrative for the US Department of Education charter school grants to state agencies, TDE wrote, “There are currently no poor-performing charter schools operating in Tennessee” (p. 30). TDE explains that statement by highlighting four “priority schools” ( a euphemism for poor performers) that are no more– two of which were Booker and Willis’ Omni Prep schools:

There are currently no poor-performing charter schools operating in Tennessee

The most recent priority school list was approved by the SBE on August 26, 2014. This was considered the 2015 priority school list. Four charter schools were designated priority schools: City University Boys Preparatory, Omni Prep Academy – North Point Lower School, Omni Prep Academy – North Pointe Middle School, and Southern Avenue Middle. City University Boys Preparatory demonstrated significant progress in the 2014-15 school year, such that it exceeded the 15th percentile of one-year success rates when ranked against other eligible schools in the state. This school has exited the priority school list and is no longer considered a priority school. All three other charter schools identified as priority schools on the 2015 list were recommended for closure by the authorizer. Just recently each school appealed to the SBE, and the SBE upheld the authorizers’ decision to close these schools. Tennessee authorizers are clearly moving toward closure of academically poor-performing schools and the SBE is upholding those decisions. Of the four charter schools named as priority schools on the last published 2015 list, three are closed and one is no longer on the priority list. This means that Tennessee currently does not have any academically poor-performing charter schools according to the definition in the federal register.

The fact that both Omni Prep schools made a formal state listing of only four total “poor-performers-but-they’re-gone-now” is nothing to tout on an ed-reform resume.

So let’s just omit it.  Let’s just forget the whole affair ever happened and ride the Booker name into six-figures as a “senior educational advisor” and then as leader of a freshly-created, state-level, early childhood education division.

I wonder if the position involves drafting impressive applications that you don’t really mean. If so, then Cary Booker has experience, after all.

fingers crossed

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Interested in scheduling Mercedes Schneider for a speaking engagement? Click here.

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Want to read about the history of charter schools and vouchers?

School Choice: The End of Public Education? 

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Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of two other books: A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education and Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?. You should buy these books. They’re great. No, really.

both books

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